Saturday, September 6, 2014

Observing a Colleague (Music)

My goal of observing colleagues is now a formal goal of observing 30 colleagues by Christmas break. This is it--I am writing it down. Having observed two colleagues thus far, the importance of the conditions of, or the design of, our classrooms is crystallizing.

I don't mean bricks and mortar, paint and polish. I mean the conditions of learning modeled by the teacher.

For example, at the end of the music class, I told my colleague, Young, that I appreciated seeing her confer with kids as much as she did. Over the course of the forty minutes that I thought to track it, Young engaged in twenty-five conferences.


Some were a minute or two, others a bit longer. But this is a far cry from the music class I remember as an adolescent.

I went to a Catholic K-8 school in the city of Philadelphia. Music class was held in a basement--dull linoleum floors, boiler room, and wire-meshed windows. When the church was being used, mobile confessional stations would appear in the basement. An occasional evening dance or talent show happened here too. Facing the stage and its flame-retardant and moss-colored curtains, the entire grade sat on uncomfortable, metal folding chairs. Sister was tall and thin and demonstrated various instruments.

We never got to play any instruments. We listened to her strum a guitar, play a flute, tap an xylophone. And we learned songs by listening to a vinyl recording. Funny, I still remember them. We learned one so we could sing it during our Confirmation ceremony. We sang it over and over and over:
I'm a soldier in Christ's Army,
Confirmation made it so.
I'm a soldier in Christ's Army,
I'll defend my faith wherever I go.
No, the devil shall not harm me,
I'm the captain of my soul.
I'm a Soldier in Christ's Army,
marching to my heavenly goal.
Today's music class is far different. For one, the students were writing music--creating a 12-bar blues song from scratch that they are going to play. Using keyboards and Garageband, the students have been recording everything--all of the instruments in their mix. Once completed, the last thing they will do is record a solo. The only rule is they all have to use the same keys, but the rhythms can be different, etc.

I didn't see the passive music lessons of my adolescence. I saw more than music. I saw writing and connected it to my classroom.

And, like the writing classroom, I thought how meaningful it is that Young presented herself as a mentor and not a judge. Because the students know that she can play music, and because they know that she can write music--they have seen her do both--the students did not flinch in the conference when Young admitted a personal struggle, "that's the one area I really need to grow in--editing the sound."

Clearly, she plays and writes alongside of her students, so it doesn't take much training to observe that Young set up very specific conditions for her classroom.  Yet, three conditions resonated most with me.

Among those that I remember from Young:

  • "You have perfect pitch, could figure out what pitch the school bell ran on!"
  • I love what you are doing here, but you want to use your second octaves. Remember, you want them  to be nice and low because it is a bass sound; you o.k. with that?
  • "That looks good, but it went a little far, cut that back to the number 5 line--yes--I'm excited to here this. Are you excited to hear it come together?"

I smiled when I heard a student ask Young, "I don't know how long it should be." I get that question too!

Young was all over the room--addressing individual questions when students needed her--and assessing each student repeatedly throughout the class. By conferring one on one, she could tell who needed extra time and who was ready for enrichment.

When she noted, "lets give Joe a chance to get that next track" she challenged a different student who seemed to take a break from writing their music, "remember you can make up your own rhythmic syncopation." That student went right at it.

While students worked independently to create music, I couldn't help thinking about the writing that occurs in my class. Sometimes I see students slow down and stop because they believed they wrote all they had to express. Sometimes they haven't developed the stamina to continue developing content and need that nudge and encouragement to know where to access the ideas to put down on paper.

When choice is offered, students will work at different rates. It doesn't mean someone is slow or doesn't understand. Sometimes students focus on details others don't prefer. For the students who moved ahead at an accelerated rate, Young provided a specific skill to work on while they were waiting for the others: practice playing the two specific keys they were writing with. Young said, "keep the tip of the thumb on all white keys, and the middle finger on all of the black keys." The students worked playing their piece with this adjustment of their hands.

As an aside, when this kind of interaction occurred, I heard "thank you" from the students often.  I know it is because our kids are polite, but I also give credence to the fact that Young has created an environment where the condition of respect exists. She respects the power of choice in her room, and she shares that power with her kids.

Final Reflection on the Observation
It makes me think of the many skills students need to learn in order to write--and how I can keep those specific skills in my back pocket when I find young writers who need a nudge to continue writing and don't know how. The beauty of Young's lesson is that is built on choice.

The student was in control of their work and they were free to make mistakes. Free from judgment, students were free to ask questions.

Young was free to work with kids in small group conferences--while others were still writing. In these small group conferences, she was providing a lot of individual coaching and opening up the possibilities for the students.

Young gave kids lots of time to write, experiment, make mistakes alongside of lots of guidance. The freedom of choice was supported with lots of quick conferences. I've seen these same conditions of a class in math and now in music

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